Looking Back on the 30th Anniversary of Tiananmen

A commentary by Dan Southerland
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tiananmen.jpg The aftermath of the military crackdown on pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square, June 4, 1989.

As I recall my experience as a reporter covering the student-led protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989, I realize how fortunate I was to see this bringing out the best in the people of Beijing.

One of my strongest memories is of Beijing citizens who turned out by the hundreds of thousands to support the students.

I wrote about the support that many citizens of Beijing provided to the students. Giving the students food, for example. Or shouting out their support for them. And, of course, turning out in the hundreds of thousands to show that support.

Most important and tragically,  hundreds of ordinary citizens of Beijing died trying to protect the students when the Chinese Army opened fire as it advanced toward Tiananmen Square on June 3-4.

I had some Chinese friends, of course. But in my view, at least prior to Tiananmen, as China opened up to capitalism, many of the local citizens were simply interested in making money. They seemed to have no time for small kindnesses.

But their actions caused me to change my mind.

The sacrifices that ordinary citizens made to protect university students on Tiananmen Square must be remembered along with everything else on June 4, the 30th anniversary of the massacre.

As anyone who’s covered a war knows, there are things that you remember vividly and that will never go away.

And for a few days at the end at least, this was like warfare. Or a war directed by the Chinese government against its own citizens.

One thing that I can never forget were the bodies that I saw in a makeshift morgue at a hospital near Tiananmen Square after the shooting stopped on June 4, 1989.

And I’ll never forget the doctor who got me into the hospital despite several people outside who tried to stop me from getting in.

I’ll never know who those people were, but they were shouting, “Don’t let the foreigner in.”

The good doctor somehow managed to get me through.

I later spoke with him briefly by phone to see if he had incurred any problems as a result of letting me in.

He said that he had been “disciplined” but was okay. In order to protect him, I decided to have no further contact with the doctor.

But remembering him reminds me of all the other doctors who rushed to Tiananmen Square to treat students growing weak from a hunger strike. Ambulances rushing some of them to hospitals became a routine part of the scene.

Another moment that I’ll never forget: I heard that a small group of villagers had halted a line of military trucks and armored personnel carriers (APCs) northwest of Beijing.

I drove there in my office car and spoke with the villagers. They told me how one woman had lain down in front of an APC and dared the soldiers to drive over her.

In the end, the APCs got around the woman, but the villagers had succeeded in slowing them down.

Covering Tiananmen

As crowds supporting the student-led protesters grew larger, reporters covering Tiananmen realized fairly early on that we were covering one of the biggest stories of our careers.

It was fascinating to observe, partly because you could go to Tiananmen Square and meet people from all walks of life. Eventually, every work unit, government department, every nearby factory, and every major state-run news outlet was there.

Police cadets showed up. I met two men who looked from their outfits as if they might be from the military. They said that they were.

Reporters from the state media carried banners calling for a free press.

One broadcaster who years later became a friend arrived at the time with a camera to interview student hunger strikers. He later told me that it was the high point of his career.

The students leading protests called for more open government and an end to corruption. These were popular issues.

Student leaders, understandably, got most of the media attention, but the “laobaixing,” or ordinary people, deserved equal recognition as things played out.

There they were bringing food to the students, shouting their support, and calling on the troops who began to encircle Beijing not to open fire.

“Well done,” shouted a middle-aged woman to a group of student marchers. “You’re the future of China.”

It began peacefully in mid-April of 1989 with university students in Beijing honoring the death of a beloved but fallen Communist Party leader.

Hu Yaobang, an outspoken reformer who was forced from power as the leader of China’s Communist Party in 1987, died in Beijing on April 15, 1989.

Hu, who died at age 73, had been removed as party chief after being accused of allowing student demonstrations to get out of control in 1986 and again in 1987.

I had covered those demonstrations, but it quickly became apparent that this was something different.

This time the students were much better organized, partly because they had been planning to mark the 70th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement of 1919, when large numbers of Chinese students first mobilized to call for freedom and democracy.

University students have long been regarded as the conscience of the nation.

As my colleague and veteran China reporter James Miles once explained, “Tiananmen belonged to the hallowed tradition of student-led activism against unpopular governments.”

A peaceful beginning filled with hope

At first, students at the prestigious Beijing University engaged in spontaneous activities mourning Hu Yaobang that couldn’t be taken as a direct challenge to the Communist Party.

But within days they had organized demonstrations at Tiananmen Square and called not only for the rehabilitation of Hu Yaobang but also for an end to corruption among high-level officials and their families.

Before long the students were also demanding freedom of speech and the press, more money for education, and, perhaps most significantly, the public disclosure of the Party and government leaders’ incomes.

By April 20, the Beijing University students had been joined by tens of thousands of students from other universities. They staged a sit-in in Beijing’s vast central square.

At first the authorities appeared to be relatively tolerant of the protests. But they also used loudspeakers to warn that the demonstrations were illegal.

I realized as the crowds supporting the students grew close to a million people that this would be one of the biggest stories that I had ever covered. But I didn’t expect that it would end in gunfire.

I did realize that the government was losing patience and would take stronger action when I saw an editorial in the People’s Daily, the Party’s official mouthpiece that accused the protesters of aiming to “overthrow the government and Party.”

Chinese sources close to the government told me that Deng Xiaoping, the country’s paramount leader, had decided that the Party had been too lenient in dealing with the students.

Two other developments apparently alarmed top Party leaders.

First, some protesters had made direct attacks on several leaders, including calls for the resignation of Premier Li Peng.

Second, factory workers began appearing on Tiananmen Square to voice support for the students.

The Chinese leaders were particularly sensitive about worker participation in street demonstrations, fearing that it could lead to even more serious challenges, such as a Polish-style Solidarity Movement.

In the meantime, demonstrations in support of the Beijing protesters were reported in numerous other Chinese cities.

After martial law was declared in Beijing on May 19, I spent part of my days on Tiananmen Square and my evenings trying to follow a group of motorcyclists, who were nicknamed “The Flying Tiger Brigade, or “feihudui.”

They seemed to know where the action was on the edges of the city and relayed information about the Chinese Army’s positions and advances around the city back to the students.

Government blames the U.S.

The mood was festive at some of the locations when the motorcycles arrived. My wife Muriel and I arrived at one location some eight miles east of Tiananmen Square one evening where military trucks were blocked. A man was sitting on a wall playing a trumpet.

No one seemed to know what was coming.

But my government sources informed me that Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang had lost out to hardliners in the Politburo. He was faulted because he had defended the students’ right to criticize the government.

The students had been calling for a dialogue with the government, which Zhao openly favored. Party elders, led by Deng Xiaoping, rejected the idea. He was influenced by Beijing officials who told him that the students were engaged in a “counter-revolutionary rebellion.”

In the end, the government blamed the United States for influencing the students and encouraging the protests. The students were certainly influenced by Western ideas and ideals, but I saw no evidence of direct U.S. influence.

One sign of inspiration from the U.S. was the Goddess of Democracy statue that the students erected on Tiananmen Square.

Despite the government’s allegation that the students had created “turmoil,” I had never seen Beijing citizens in such a friendly mood. The crime rate appeared to go down.

It was so peaceful that my wife Muriel was able to go out each day and shoot video of the protesters, often pushing along our 15-month-old daughter in a baby carriage.

That tenuous peace reigned up until the evening of June 3, when the army was blocked by crowds of civilians, who were urging the soldiers not to shoot at the protesters.

To this day, we still don’t know how many people died in the Tiananmen massacre. My own estimate, based on an informal survey of colleagues who, like me, had visited hospitals, was that at least 800 people were killed.

Many deaths also occurred in dozens of cities outside Beijing.

The Chinese Red Cross was cited as saying that some 10,000 people died. If this had been the case, I think we would have seen more bodies.

Liu Xiaobo’s role

It’s important at this time to remember and honor the role played by several Chinese intellectuals who went early on to Tiananmen Square and stayed until the end. They were able to negotiate with two military officers to ensure a safe passage out of the southwest corner of the square for the students who remained there.

Among them was Liu Xiaobo, who was later to win a Nobel Peace Prize.

Liu was already known as China’s most prominent dissident, when in 2008 he helped to draft Charter 08, a citizens’ manifesto signed by more than 12,000 Chinese intellectuals and human rights activists.

Liu was sent to prison in 2009 on charges of “inciting subversion,” and in 2010 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

But it’s also important to remember the role that Liu played in negotiating a truce between student protesters and the Chinese army at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3-4, 1989.

Before midnight on June 3, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army had already killed dozens if not hundreds of Chinese civilians as its troops drove through crowds of protesters to reach the square.

With students arguing among themselves whether to leave Tiananmen Square or die there, Liu and three colleagues maintained a semblance of order on the square and negotiated a truce with two PLA officers that allowed hundreds of students to escape safely from the square.

I was The Washington Post’s Beijing bureau chief at the time. Plainclothes police dragged away an American reporter who was working for me on the square, repeatedly kicked him in the head, threw him in unmarked car, and detained him.

They made him think he was going to be killed but then dumped him on a road far from Beijing. I didn’t hear from him for three more days.

I decided that things were still dangerous enough that I had to send my wife and children on an evacuation flight to Hong Kong.

And here’s another moment that I’ll never forget.

As the Chinese Army began to withdraw from Tiananmen Square, soldiers opened fire into an apartment building facing the main avenue leading east from the square.

I lived in another apartment building in the same apartment complex, which housed a number of diplomats and journalists.

Officials later claimed that a sniper was in the area and they were firing back at him. But I never saw or heard any evidence of a sniper.

When the shooting started I hit the floor in my apartment, picked up the phone, and called the foreign desk at The Washington Post.

I told an editor that my apartment complex was under attack and that I had no idea what was going on but would call back when I found out.

Fortunately, few people were left in the building that was attacked but it appeared that the soldiers were shooting into apartments that housed American military attaches.

Fortunately, a U.S. official had been tipped off by a Chinese Army officer that something might happen to the apartment building and that the U.S. embassy should try to get everyone out.

Dan Southerland is RFA’s founding executive editor.


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